POV (Perspective)
Composing Harry Through COVID
  • Thursday, May. 28, 2020
Wendell Hanes

I was honored to be the music composer and music supervisor for the acclaimed documentary film The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show, directed by Yoruba Richen. The film delves into one of the most explosive time periods during the ‘60s when racial tensions were high and anti-war sentiment was soaring. In the midst of it all, Harry Belafonte was asked by Johnny Carson to host the late night show for one full week. 

There is nothing like scoring such an important film during the height of COVID-19 and every outlet is telling you to stay inside, avoid social contact and be careful of all surfaces. Who knew it would become the norm for me to eat sandwiches with gloves on and washing my hands every 30 minutes while wondering if a harmless sneeze or cough was the beginning of a COVID symptom?

Luckily my long career of film scoring has been anchored by an equally long career as a composer for commercials.  Commercial composers are built for the stay inside regimen. Since most budgets don’t allow for multiple singers in contracts or genuine orchestras to replay compositions, the commercial composer has always been asked to make magic happen within a confined set of parameters. Score an 80-minute movie from your basement in the middle of a global pandemic in less than a month? No problem! We are used to scoring spots in less than an hour if necessary. We battle deadlines and circumstance all the time, however, playing piano with gloves on was something I wasn’t used to.  So.....I washed my hands for 30 seconds and got down to business. The Harry Belafonte score was emotionally challenging due to the virus lurking outdoors. I created most of the sonic layerings in my home studio first and then used the life saving app, Zoom, to communicate musical layerings with banjo players, trumpet players and violinists. 

You have to be careful of your tone when speaking over Zoom and critiquing a performance, I made a point not to come off as a harassing little square voice piercing through a laptop. Setting the right tone with my voice was essential in evaluating the performance of my vocalist so critiquing a take didn’t sound like me criticizing a take. You never really know how you sound coming through a laptop until you hear yourself. Having talent that understands what your eyes and hands are saying as much as your voice makes for an efficient session. To that end, I used just one singer to create the sound of 30 singers for the ending Belafonte credit roll by stacking vocals in different pitches AND personalities so that when mixed together, we would have a big sound. And it turned out to be the most time-saving decision I made. A funny and positive aspect of composing during COVID is that if you need a revision at any point during the day, the talent is more than likely already home and in position to re-record. 

Prior to COVID, you might not be able to get the talent back in the studio until midnight or the next day. This advantage allowed me to change my mind on a dime and feel comfortable experimenting more than usual. And with the deadline getting closer time was of the essence. The score came together faster than normal since I was working around the clock and staying indoors all the time. From Funk and Big Band music to Motown and Bossa Nova, the sound needed to highlight both the segregation of races and the ideologies of progress. I often used classic orchestration as a thread to make Harry’s story seamless. I recall days that I thought I was getting a fever, only to realize that my wife had slapped the thermostat on 80 degrees. Luckily, the score turned out to be hot, NOT me. 

COVID reinforced a number of important things to me as a composer.  When you do what you love, you never feel trapped. When you surround yourself with good people, your goals become that much easier and your results connect much better. All in all, it’s great using technology that keeps us together in the midst of a pandemic that’s keeping us apart. And just like Harry Belafonte has shown throughout his lifetime, no matter what this game of life presents us with, we always find big ways to score! 

Wendell Hanes is owner/composer at Volition Sound

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